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Twitter launches new API as it tries to make amends with third-party developers

Twitter launches new API as it tries to make amends with third-party developers


Wooing developers with a new API

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Twitter is making it easier for businesses, academics, and third-party developers to build on its platform with the launch of its API v2 today. The company announced the new API last month, but as the news arrived the day after it was hit by one of the most devastating hacks in social media history, it decided to delay the launch. Notably, Twitter is presenting the API v2 not only as a way to deliver new features faster, but as something of a reset in its long and fractious relationship with the app’s developer community.

The API v2 is the first complete rebuild of Twitter’s API since 2012, when the company famously began limiting how third-party developers could build on its product. Prior to this, outside developers could more or less replicate and customize the Twitter experience in their own clients. But as Twitter focused more on its advertising business, it apparently decided it didn’t want to split its user base. It began slowly squeezing out third-party devs, blocking them from new features like polls and group DMs, and shepherding users toward the company’s own apps. Businesses were killed and developers weren’t happy.

Now, though, Twitter is trying to rebuild some of these bridges. The API v2 offers third-party developers access to features long absent from their clients, including “conversation threading, poll results in Tweets, pinned Tweets on profiles, spam filtering, and a more powerful stream filtering and search query language.” There’s also access to a real-time tweet stream, rather than forcing third parties to wait before serving new tweets.

This should mean that, following the API v2 launch, third-party Twitter clients like Tweetbot and Twitterrific can begin integrating these features, though there are some caveats.

The big is one is that Twitter is reorganizing its API access along three levels. Only the basic, free level is launching today, and that has limits on how many API calls developers can make (aka how frequently their software can ping Twitter for data). The next level of access, which Twitter is calling “elevated,” won’t have the same restrictions, but it will cost users, and Twitter isn’t announcing pricing just yet. The company does say, though, that it expects 80 percent of developers on its platform will have their needs met by the basic tier.

The new API system puts different products in the same platform, each with different access levels. Only the free basic access level launches today.
The new API system puts different products in the same platform, each with different access levels. Only the free basic access level launches today.
Image: Twitter

Before the details are shared, it’s difficult to say what changes will happen to third-party clients, Ged Maheux, co-founder of Twitterific’s parent company Iconfactory, tells The Verge. He says the new API is “potentially very good for third party Twitter clients,” but that Iconfactory is taking a “wait and see” approach until they know details, particularly pricing.

But Maheux says he and his colleagues have also been impressed by Twitter’s conciliatory approach to developers. “Over the last few years, Twitter hasn’t been great and they know it. But they fully recognize and admit it,” he says. “After so long being a third or fourth class citizen with Twitter, it’s refreshing.”

The new API is about more than just third-party Twitter clients, though. A whole range of businesses and services depend on access to Twitter’s data, including analytics firms like Spiketrap and Social Market Analytics, single-use bots like the House of Lords Hansard bot and Emoji Mashup bot, and power-user tools like TweetDelete, Block Party, and Tokimeki Unfollow. Twitter also offers an incredibly rich source of data for academics studying large-scale social trends. Researchers uses Twitter’s API for a variety of purposes, from gauging flood levels from tweets to tracking the spread of online hate speech.

Twitter says it wants to encourage more of these sorts of applications by making its API ecosystem more accessible. A new onboarding wizard, for example, reduces the number of fields third parties have to fill out to get their hands on API keys from 10 to just one, while new search tools to find support documentation and a new centralized support page will make it easier for developers to find help when they need it.

As Twitter’s Alyssa Reese put it in a blog post on the changes: “You see, we want developers to get moon-eyed when they talk about our documentation. To have error messages that are so helpful they’re almost as pleasant as getting a handwritten letter in the mail. Our aim is to be a company that other developer platforms reference when they are looking for inspiration (and we know we have a way to go).”

Unifying API access should also help users. Previously, Twitter’s API was split into three platforms: standard (free), premium (self-serve paid), and enterprise (custom paid). But as Twitter itself admits, migration between these tiers was “tedious.” The new API replaces these tiers with “product tracks” in a single platform, with these products then split into the different tiers of access described above.

Although the API v2 is undoubtedly a big launch for Twitter, the company is stressing that it’s a work in progress. It’s calling the current phase “early access” to emphasize the evolving nature of the API, and it’s encouraging developers to look over its new public roadmap and offer their thoughts on upcoming features. Twitter, then, is recognizing that fixing any troubled relationship starts with a conversation.